Yesterday, I received a sneering email from an obviously partisan campaign group which implied that the Big Society is about nothing more than people giving their time. I beg to differ.
If society is "the sum of human conditions and activity regarded as a whole functioning interdependently" (Concise OED), then it comprises everything we do. Society includes family, friendship, volunteering, giving and exchanging. It is a rich and comprehensive tapestry of human relationships which includes business.
If only some enterprises are "social", does that mean all others are anti-social? Surely not. We are sustained by an intricate network of production, exchange and consumption. Producing and selling the means of human survival, fulfilment and enjoyment is a vital social activity. All enterprise is social.
Provided the exchange of goods and services is not coerced, it is the creation of value for other people. Profit earned without privilege or compulsion is a measure of value produced for other people, in their opinion. Entrepreneurship is then the creative search to help other people.
Society is not built on gifts of goods and services. Giving is good, but a gift economy would soon run into the socialist calculation problem: how much of what to give to whom? Yet a healthy society requires good will and the recognition that not everything can be bought and that not everyone has the means to buy.
The change we need is a change within. From a belief that human relationships should be based on class conflict and mutual plunder mediated by the State, to a reliance on mutual cooperation. From the view that business is somehow bad, to the realisation that all enterprise is social. From condemnation of profit, to an understanding that it is a measure of the value created for others. From fear of bearing risk, to the truth, that the search to create value for other people is the foundation of worthwhile community. From waiting for the State to decide and provide, to energetic, innovative mutual support.
For me, the Big Society is about people having more to do with one another and the government less. It is about rediscovering the Golden Rule, the ethic of reciprocity which has underpinned so many traditions and communities and which was famously stated as:
Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
Those who sneer at the Big Society are sneering at the foundations of civilisation. They are dangerously mistaken.
Further readingC S Lewis, The Abolition of Man, in which Lewis considers the Tao, the traditional body of natural law, and efforts to abandon it. My summary is here.
On the choice between society or government, see Albert Jay Nock's classic, Our Enemy, The State (PDF).